Pastoring young adults: How to see their role in the church

It’s no secret that we live in a time where anxiety and stress run rampant. The bags under our eyes betray our Instagram feeds, and our overextended hearts reluctantly say to the world “We’re doing great!” Demands at work overwhelm us. Emotional stress drains us. And if that’s not enough, religious and cultural pressures call us to care for all causes in the world, not to mention the elderly woman who lives across the street.

These pressures translate to all generations, regardless of age, job, or gender. But those at the frontlines of transition and technology are young adults. Navigating vocation, calling, technological advancement, shifting social landscape, and identity formation, young adults lead the way in adapting to our society’s “new normal.”

The question is not whether the world is changing; the question is how can we lead those who are on the battleground? As a pastor, here are three things you should know about discipling the young adults in your communities.

Young adults are compassionate.

Do you believe young adults are self-focused or selfless? Common stereotypes tend toward the former. Millennials and Gen Z often receive labels like “lazy” and “narcissistic” without context or any effort to understand them. But what do researchers say?

Earlier this year, Barna Group, a leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture, partnered with World Vision, an international humanitarian organization, to host a webcast, Faith for the Future. The webcast included a summary report of key results from a multi-year research initiative on people ages 18-35, otherwise known as the millennial and Gen Z generations.

According to a recent Barna study, 77 percent of young adults reported that “events around the world mattered to them” and 57 percent reported “feeling connected to people around the world.” While it’s true that the digital age offers more temptations for self-focus, it also offers more opportunities to understand and empathize with others around the globe. In fact, 30 percent of young adults reported engaging with four or more forms of activism. Young people aren’t just talking the talk; they are walking the (highly compassionate) walk.

With this root of compassion, Christians and non-Christians alike want to know how faith fits into this activism. David Kinnaman, president of Barna, explains it like this: “Young adults don’t just want to see if Christianity is true, they want to understand that it is good.” They are asking if Christianity is good for friendships, family, and communities. They want to know if the gospel really is good news for the hurting and broken world around them.

Pastors need to prepare to answer such questions. Be ready to explain not only sound doctrine, but how the church is designed to bridge the “sacred” and “secular,” how faith relates to both Sunday and Monday work, and how the church, through Christ, really is the hope of the world.

Young adults are burdened.

On top of school, sports, scholarship essays, and a social life, technology is widening the gap between being connected and feeling connected. While 77 percent of young adults reported “events around the world mattering to them,” only 33 percent reported feeling “deeply cared for by people around them.” Segmented from other data, these points may speak to straightforward cultural norms. But together, Kinnaman explains what he calls a “recipe for anxiety.”

The tidal wave of knowledge, articles, and causes to support feels quickly overwhelming. Through fast-paced social media and nonstop new cycles, young adults increasingly feel connected to a growing number of concerns. But the gap between knowing and being known is widening all the more.

“Anxiety has always been there as part of my pastoral ministry,” explains Mark Sayers, pastor and creator of This Cultural Moment podcast. “But it’s become normative. Young people used to be full of excitement and energy and idealism. Some of that is still there, but [now there is] a passivity and overwhelmedness in the face of the world.”

The weight of the world is too much for young people (or anyone) to carry on their own. So how can the church help?

Sayers relates this cultural phenomenon to a fire drill or crisis. In a state of panic, young people attempt to find a calm and trustworthy voice above the noise. “I have to be a person of peace,” Sayers says. “They are being bombarded with narratives each day. [As a pastor] I have to be a peaceful presence. They’re looking for people who will help them discern culture and see the big picture.”

Pastors, know the role you can play to a weary and worried generation. Be prepared to meet young adults in their anxious state, and equip them to trust that Jesus’ work on the cross is sufficient for a broken world. Provide hope, understanding, and a willingness to help lighten the load.

Young adults need discipleship.

Although young adults have the world of social media at their fingertips, the need for real connection is still present. Research shows that digital platforms are not enough to sustain deep, relational connections, and if this is true, how can the church fill in the gap?

In Barna’s Faith for the Future webcast, author and speaker Jo Saxton discussed how “loneliness is reshaping a generation.” Social media platforms intended to connect actually leave young people more isolated than ever before. While certainly useful for communicating, social media can only bear part of the weight of messy, meaningful relationships. Its overuse tricks us into thinking our clicks and likes are true social interaction. Addressing church leaders, Saxton emphasized: “It should have us paying attention to how we view community.”

So how does the church do community differently? The natural, God-given solution is discipleship. Millennials and Gen Z need to be seen, but more importantly, they need to be known.

Watered-down sermons and hollow conversations won’t meet them with solutions. Pastors and church members must be in the lives of young people to really know their struggles. The path toward authentic connection begins on Sunday, but true discipleship manifests in the trenches of everyday life.

“When we think about reaching millennials or Gen Z, we often think we need to lower the bar,” said Jason Ballard, pastor of Christian Life Assembly. “But the research is showing when you say ‘this might cost you your life,’ they begin to see their lives as an expression or an extension of faith to others.”

Pastors, remember that young adults are naturally drawn to purpose, passion, and authenticity. These are natural ingredients for healthy church discipleship, giving your church a helpful starting point to steward community. Young adults want to be a real part of what’s going on at church, not only being seen, but being known.


With hearts equipped for service and a great capacity for compassion, pastors have a new opportunity to shepherd “movers and shakers” with zeal and excitement. Although misunderstood in some ways, younger generations don’t simply want to be consumers of society; they want to be contributors. As we learn to disciple young adults in their own context, we need to cultivate curiosity, encourage intergenerational engagement, and lead them to understand how the gospel transforms all areas of both their own lives and the world around them.

More information about this research is available at

Topics: Discipleship, Millennials

About the Author

Paige Wiley serves as the engagement coordinator at Made to Flourish. She is a recent graduate of Kansas State University, where she double-majored in Communication Studies and International Studies. With a passion for teaching, training, and discipleship, she is excited to facilitate the membership of pastors in the network to make a real, lasting impact on communities for the integration of faith, work, and economic wisdom. As a Kansas City native, she is returning to her roots after various internships around the world, including Walt Disney World, the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, and volunteer work in Northern Ireland.